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Iranian Protester Seeks Asylum in U.S.

Sorata Sarhaddi Nelson
Los Angeles Times
October 15, 2000

The trace of repeated beatings for secular thought linger on Gholam Reza Mohajery-Nejad's face: a crooked nose, the slight indentation in one cheekbone, the haunted look in dark eyes as he recounts 130 days of torture in a windowless Iranian prison.

It is the same infamous prison that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was sent to for opposing the former shah.

Nejad's crime was taking part in the massive student protests against the Islamic republic in July 1999, after five sleeping students were killed in their dormitory by government-backed forces. He's soft-spoken and shy, hardly the image of a rebel Tehran University undergraduate who helped incite the protests against the Islamic republic, a campaign on Iran's streets that to this day continues to call for freedom and government accountability.

But the 28-year-old paid dearly for his involvement, and out of fear for his life has fled to Southern California in recent weeks, leaving behind his family and friends.

With the help of the Rancho Palos Verdes-based Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran, he is taking the rare step of applying for political asylum at the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Laguna Niguel.

He is being moved from one expatriate's house to another in Southern California, locations kept secret to protect Nejad and those who are sheltering him.

It was only 16 months ago that Nejad and his group chanted "Freedom of thought and expression don't come from beards," referring to the bearded mullahs.

"People didn't believe how much power the students had," he said last week in Persian.

Less than 72 hours after the 1999 demonstrations, Nejad and fellow student dissident Manouchehr Mohammadi were picked up by security forces. An 8-year-old boy who lived in the house where the students were hiding was also jailed.

The child was released a week later, traumatized, but physically unharmed, Nejad said.

He and Mohammadi were not as fortunate. They were whipped and beaten, day after day, he said, and confined to cells that were barely 6 feet long and 2 feet wide.


Nejad said he once attempted suicide to escape the pain of being dangled by chains from ceilings and having his feet whipped until they bled. He was paroled last fall.

But broken bones have not weakened his resolve to continue the activity that landed him in jail in the first place: openly advocating separation of church and state in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It's a fight he said he will continue in his new country.

"My heart is in Iran and that's where I belong," said Nejad, who hails from Babol, a town near the Caspian Sea. But going back now means certain imprisonment, if not death, he added.

The literature major has a strong case for asylum, said Nejad's Fountain Valley-based attorney, Russell Kerr. Under the new Convention Against Torture guidelines adopted by the INS, no one can be returned to a country where they'd likely be subjected to torture.

The U.S. State Department says Iran fits that characterization. In its most recent report, the agency cited the Islamic republic for "extrajudicial killings and summary executions; disappearances; widespread use of torture and other degrading treatment," among other things.

The clerics "are shameful, not even human," Nejad told a friend from Tehran who had called him last week to update him on student dissident activities.

The friend, who called from a Tehran drugstore out of fear that her home phone was tapped, described student leader Mohammadi's deteriorating health.

Since Nejad left Iran, interrogators have withheld medical treatment from Mohammadi, who developed a debilitating cough and infected teeth, the friend said. Instead, Mohammadi's jailers pump him for information about Nejad's activities.

"You don't know how much your courageous efforts keep me going," Nejad told his friend shakily, his eyes filling with tears.

Nejad is deputy leader of the National Coalition of Students and Graduates, the first known anti-theocratic group among a handful of student organizations within Iran that emerged in the early '90s in search of reforms.

U.S. sociologists tracking the Iranian student movement said Nejad's group split off from religiously oriented protesters long before the dormitory incident, largely because of strong secular views and disdain for clerical control of the movement.

The group was declared illegal less than a year after its inception in 1993, Nejad said, and soon went underground, with students passing out leaflets in dormitories under cover of darkness.

Nejad and the coalition's leader, Mohammadi, took their case to Europe and the United States in early 1998, said Ali Akbar Mahdi, associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University. They soon began to garner support from various groups, including pro-monarchist expatriates, leftists, foreign students and professors.

But such support came back to haunt them. The government used the men's activities to bolster charges that they were agents of the West, evidence that helped lead to their incarceration.

The authenticity of confessions by Nejad and other leaders, some of which were televised, were questioned by human rights activists.

"This recourse to televised confessions is deeply troubling and suggests that these individuals may have given these statements under duress," Hanny Megally, an official with the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said in an August 1999 report.


The ability of Nejad and Mohammadi to attract students to their cause has waned since their arrest, Mahdi said.

Still, other student groups are following their lead in breaking with the mainstream student group, known as the Office of Consolidation for Unity, and calling for greater separation of church and state.

The repressive actions of the government and a growing dissatisfaction with the policy of "active pacifism" advocated by reformists are to blame, Mahdi said.

"People who were pushing for them now have power and aren't doing anything for the students anymore."

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who met with students in Iran last week, told them not to be "deceived" by foreign enemies into believing clergy should be separated from politics.

Nonetheless, Mahdi, like Nejad, senses a growing public dissatisfaction with clerical rule in their homeland.

"What the majority of Iranians will likely want is a constitutional democracy that does not oppose their religious values and assigns the clergy the task of moral leadership, not political leadership," Mahdi said.

"That does not mean [Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami is finished. But the question is how much of the 73% [voter] support is there anymore."

Nejad was recently interviewed on Iranian talk radio in Beverly Hills, and joined hundreds of other expatriates last month in demonstrating in front of UCLA and the Ritz-Carlton when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was in town.

"He's a child of the revolution and by talking to him, I feel like I can better understand the movement of young people and what they are deprived of," said the expatriate with whom Nejad is currently staying. "They are missing things we here take for granted, simple freedoms like going to the movies or dating and holding hands. I can go with my friends to the movie no matter what their sex."

Added Mohammad Parvin, co-founder of the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights: "He symbolizes that hope in me, that these young people can make a change in Iran."


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